Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan: Clashes Continue As Islamabad Maintains Offensive Against Suspected Militants

Pakistani forces are continuing to fight suspected Al-Qaeda militants and their supporters in the country's tribal area near the Afghan border, while internal opposition to the offensive appears to be growing.

Prague, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani forces are continuing to battle some 500 suspected Al-Qaeda militants and tribal sympathizers in the country's border area with Afghanistan.

Scores of soldiers, militants, and civilians have been killed in the clashes. And as the fighting drags on for a second week, the country's Islamic parties are starting to voice their opposition.

"I think it was the feeling among the military leadership that they should not take it lying down, that they should take action against all those people fighting the Pakistani army."
The operation in Wana, in South Waziristan, is part of what's described as a major push to sweep foreign militants from the border area. Some 5,000 troops are involved in the fighting -- the biggest such operation Pakistan has waged in the tribal area.

Meanwhile, on the Afghan side of the border, U.S. troops are engaged in their own hunt for suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Negotiations in South Waziristan between tribal elders and suspected militants have made little progress. Meanwhile, reports say a roadside bomb killed three police officers late yesterday, while on 22 March, attackers ambushed a Pakistani army convoy near Wana, killing at least 12 soldiers and injuring 15.

Rahimulah Yusufzai is a former editor of the English-language Pakistani daily "The News in Peshawar." He is now a freelance journalist working for several Western media outlets in Pakistan. Yusufzai says it is too early to judge if the operation is successful but says it is unlikely a major Al-Qaeda figure will be captured.

"They have arrested about 100 people who they say are suspects, but I don't think there's any high-value [official] among them. I think they are common villagers. Most of them are innocent. They will be released, I think, in due course of time. In the past, they also rounded up a number of villagers, innocent people, and they had to be released. [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf did say, though, that there had been a 'high-value' Al-Qaeda figure in the area because there was fierce resistance by the fighters and militants who were there. But until now, we don't have evidence of that," Yusufzai said.

Hopes of capturing any "high-value targets" faded after the military discovered a 2-kilometer-long tunnel leading from a mud fortress that was under attack.

Yusufzai says he does not believe Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in the area. He says: "There were no reports at all that these people have been seen in South Waziristan."

The Pakistani military claims its forces have arrested 123 suspects and killed six suspected foreign fighters. The identities of those killed have not yet been determined. But it insists that Arabs, Uzbeks, and Chechens are among those who have been surrounded or killed. Uzbekistan has demanded the extradition of any of its citizens caught among the suspected terrorists.

Yusufzai explains that South Waziristan is part of Pakistan's semi-autonomous western tribal areas. He says the tribes living in this region are very conservative and fiercely opposed to the presence of outsiders.

"The level of literacy is very low and people are very conservative, and it is also on the border with Afghanistan. You can easily cross over to the other side or come to Pakistan. And also the border has divided the whole tribes on both sides of the border, and for them this border does not exist," Yusufzai said.

Yusufzai says support for Al-Qaeda and the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan is high in the region.

There is disagreement about the timing of Pakistan's military operations in the tribal areas. The Islamic opposition claims Musharraf is behaving on the orders of Washington, while other observers say Musharraf is using the offensive to deflect attention from the suspected involvement of Pakistani scientists in the nuclear black market.

Yusufzai says the main stimulus is the simple fact that the tribal region poses a challenge to Islamabad's authority.

"I think it is not [launched] to cover anything because, you know, when Pakistani military -- which is so powerful and which is ruling the country -- when the army is challenged, they always take their revenge. I think it was the feeling among the military leadership that they should not take it lying down, that they should take action against all those people fighting the Pakistani army," Yusufzai said.

Anthony Cordesman is a former senior U.S. diplomat and military official now with Washington's Institute for Strategic and International Studies. He believes it is premature to make such conclusions.

"I think it is not clear that they are going in to establish some kind of lasting government control, as distinguished from trying to bring security. You know, we are generalizing from a [single] operation," Cordesman said.

Cordesman says Musharraf is less concerned about questions of nuclear proliferation than he is about recent assassination attempts against him.

"I think the truth of the matter is that the assassination attempts and the growing threat that extremism poses in Pakistan [is] much more of a motive than the nuclear issue," Cordesman said.

Meanwhile, opposition against the offensive in South Waziristan appears to be growing.

Supporters of the six-party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance of Islamic parties protested in the western town of Dera Ismail Khan, shouting, "Go, Musharraf, go," and "Stop killing innocent people." And Bazar Gul, the head of the Khyber Union, a tribal organization in the Khyber district near the Afghan border, warned today of the possibility of a "tribal rebellion" if the government continues with its operations in the tribal zones.

Yesterday, hundreds of people near the Khyber Pass took to the streets demanding an end to the military operation.